What brought you to Vietnam?
France and my wife. After years abroad, my wife and I decided to move back to France. It took us a couple of weeks to realise it wasn’t the best idea ever. She had a job offer in Hanoi. We moved. That was in 2007.
When you first arrived in Vietnam, you worked in the wine industry. What was that like? Why did you decide to change your career?
Vietnam was a really surprising place to work in wine. Customers were spending big money on expensive bottles; you don’t see that often any more back home. Top wine estates are investing in PR activities in Vietnam and there are plenty of wine dinners you won’t even have a chance to attend in Europe. Here you can, and at a fraction of the price.
After seven years in the wine industry I moved to food distribution. I wouldn’t call that a change of career, but I have to admit that talking to chefs is quite different to talking to other people in the hospitality industry. They’re a different breed.
The restaurant business was always on my mind. It was a logical conclusion to the professional work I’d been doing over the previous 15 years.
What was the original idea behind Cousins?
A laid-back bistro and restaurant that was good value for money while not compromising on quality.
How easy or difficult was it to find your first space?
Neither easy or difficult, but it took time and luck. In general, rent is fairly expensive here. But every now and then you can find some great deals. Again, it takes time and a good dose of luck.
Why do you think the concept has been so successful?
Cousins filled a gap in the restaurant market in Hanoi — there weren’t really that many places sitting in between the bottom and top ends of the industry. Cousins caters to all — from the flip flop-wearing tay ba lo to the suit-wearing executive.
Who are your customers?
It depends on the location. Tay Ho is mainly western, Tran Quoc Toan and Dao Tan are mainly Japanese and Vietnamese. Amato is a good eclectic mix of residents and tourists alike.
How difficult is it to balance the cost of quality ingredients with prices that aren’t extortionate?
Ten years managing wine and food import companies makes sourcing a bit easier. You know who to speak to, where to go, and what people are looking for. My suppliers have to make money and I have to make a living. I also don’t want to overcharge people. The point is to not be too greedy.
Is expanding the business increasing the amount of problems you have to deal with or is it genuinely beneficial?
The bigger the business, the more volume you have and the easiest it is to cut deals with suppliers. Splitting up products over the five restaurants also allows for a fast rotation of ingredients and a regular supply. On the other hand, finding 20 excellent staff to work with you isn’t too easy, but it is doable. Once you reach 100 staff it gets really tricky.
Why do you think the market for non-Vietnamese food is growing?
Many reasons. Bigger exposure to foreign food and ideas with more and more people travelling abroad. Better financial conditions for a large part of the population. Also, having more and more options to eat non-Vietnamese food helps create a market for restaurants like my own.
If you could change one thing on the restaurant scene in Hanoi, what would it be and why?
People in the hospitality industry need to help each other more than they currently do. A restaurant owner in Hanoi recently trashed my place on TripAdvisor. Things like this are unhelpful and unnecessary.
For more information on Cousins, check out their three restaurants on Facebook — cousins.quangba, cousins.daotan and cousins.tranquoctoan. For more info on Amato, click on facebook.com/amato.trangtien
PHOTO BY JULIE VOLA